It’s ten years now since Edith Pattou’s North Child  was first published. A rich mix of fairy tale and fantasy it was an immediate favourite with readers across the world. Now its UK publisher Usborne has produced a handsome new edition, and the exciting news for fans is that Pattou is working on a new adventure for her hero Rose.
On a recent trip to the UK to carry out research for the new story, Edith Pattou talked to Books for Keeps about her writing.
It all started with the fairy tale ‘East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon’
The plot of North Child is constructed around the Norwegian fairy tale ‘East of the Sun and West o’ the Moon’. The quietly spoken Pattou, who must have been asked about this so many times, still enthuses about the effect it had on her as a child growing up in Chicago. ‘I just loved the story, and the heroine, who doesn’t even have a name of course. She flies on the back of the winds and as a child that really caught my imagination. She was so determined, and I really liked that too. With hindsight I’d like to say it was because she was so powerful, and maybe that did draw me, on a subconscious level, but really, it was just the story that caught my imagination.’
Fairy tales of all sorts appealed to her as a child. ‘There’s a semi chaotic world in fairy tales, but there’s always order to them too: the good are rewarded, and I always liked the moral comfort they offer. Actually I loved Agatha Christie too, in the same way that everything is all worked out at the end!’
Pattou describes her own childhood as mainly happy, but admits that she was quite a lonely child. ‘I was an only child, my parents were lovely, but they were pre-occupied. I was left to get on with things. In fact they would eventually divorce, which was a painful experience for me’. No wonder then that Rose’s strength and determination, not to mention her ability to make things right, appeals to her so much.
The mother in North Child tries to shape their children’s lives from the moment of their birth, and she finds her youngest child, Rose, always running in the wrong direction, a particular problem. ‘Mothers often get a bad rap in my books’, says Pattou, ‘and I still wonder about the way that Rose’s mother is the one main character in the book not to have her own voice’ (North Child is told by multiple narrators, including Rose, her brother, father and the White Bear.) She quickly adds, ‘but I had a lovely mother!
A childhood visit to Ireland gave her an experience of a very different type of home life when she spent a summer living with a family in Dublin. ‘There was I, this lonely child suddenly part of a big family, and I really loved it. It was eye opening for me to go and live with a family with siblings, and witness the loving relationships they had.’ She also discovered Irish fairy tales while she was there, returning home with a big book of them.
Collecting books and fairy stories is a habit for Pattou. Before she wrote North Child she says she was lucky enough to go on a tour through the Norwegian fjiords and while there discovered some wonderful Norwegian books of fairytales. This was pre-Amazon of course when such books were much harder to come by. Research too is something that she really enjoys, happily admitting ‘I am a bit of a nerd’! One of the many pleasures of reading North Child is that the world described, with its fascinating details of Norwegian and Inuit life, feels so very real. With Rose’s ordinary, practical life-skills – weaving, washing a shirt – being so crucial to the success of her quest, it’s important that the reader believes in it. ‘I thought that Rose doing such a good job of the laundry was a wonderful way to break the spell!’ Apparently some readers have felt the book to be closer to historical fiction than fantasy. ‘I loved my research for the book,’ says Edith, ‘I learned so much about weaving, and about compasses and of course map making too – I vividly remember the thrill I felt when I found out about the little Inuit carvings of coastlines on ivory, I knew I’d include them.’
It is research that has brought Edith to the UK this time. When we met, she was on her way to Scotland. She had, she says, already been in touch with an organisation called Ask Scotland for information on sixteenth century Scottish windows. They hadn’t been able to help, but knew and loved her book, which delighted her!
This time the old Scottish tale of the stolen bairn and the sidh is her inspiration, another female centred story in which a determined mother rescues her baby from the fairies. ‘Everything is so neatly tied up at the end of North Child, but I had started to wonder about Rose’s daughter, and basing a story on her,’ Edith explains, ‘It was while I was thinking about the book that I had an epiphany moment! What if you-know-who didn’t die? And then I had to work out that if the Troll Queen was to come back, who would she be angriest with? I decided it would be Rose!’ That’s all that she is prepared to say about the new book at the moment, she is ‘still in sponge mode’, receptive to all sorts of ideas.
Ideas would seem to come to her easily, she mentioned two or three others during our conversation, it’s the sifting process that takes time, she says. Yet even so, she’s particularly delighted that the reissue of North Child has sparked so many new ideas. It has also reawakened interest amongst film companies, something the many fans of the book will be especially pleased to hear too.
North Child (978-1409540540) is published by Usborne,